Thursday, September 13, 2012
Number 321: Anonymous; May Colvin
False Sir John a-wooing came,
To a maid of beauty rare;
May Colvin was the lady’s name,
Her father’s only heir.
He wooed her indoors, he wooed her out,
He wooed her night and day;
Until he got the lady’s consent
To mount and ride away.
Go fetch me some if your father’s gold
And some of your mother’s fee,
And I’ll carry you to the far Northland
And there I’ll marry thee.”
She’s gone to her father’s coffers,
Where all his money lay;
And she’s taken the red, and she’s left the white,
And lightly she’s tripped away.
She’s gone down to her father’s stable,
Where all his steeds did stand;
And she’s taken the best and left the worst,
That was in her father’s land.
He rode on, and she rode on,
They rode a long summer’s day,
Until they came to a broad river,
An arm of a lonesome sea.
“Leap off the steed,” says false Sir John;
“Your bridal bed you see;
For it’s seven fair maids I have drowned here,
And the eighth one you shall be.
Cast off, cast off your silks so fine,
And lay them on a stone,
For they are too fine and costly
To rot in the salt sea foam.”
“O turn about, thou false Sir John,
And look to the leaf o’ the tree;
For it never became a gentleman
A naked women to see.”
He’s turned himself straight round about
To look to the leaf o’ the tree,
She’s twined her arms about his waist,
And thrown him into the sea.
“O hold a grip of me, May Colvin,
For fear that I should drown;
I’ll take you home to your father’s gates,
And safe I’ll set you down.”
“O safe enough I am, Sir John,
And safer I will be;
For seven fair maids have your drowned here,
The eighth shall not be me.
“O lie you there, thou false Sir John,
O lie you there, said she,
“For you lie not in a colder bed
Than the one you intended for me.”
So she went on her father’s steed,
As swift as she could away;
And she came home to her father’s gates
At the breaking of the day.
Up then spake the pretty parrot:
“May Colvin, where have you been?
What has become of false Sir John,
That wooed you yestere’en?”
“O hold your tongue, my pretty parrot,
Nor tell no tales on me;
Your cage will be made of beaten gold
With spokes of ivory.”
Up then spake her father dear,
In the chamber where he lay:
“What ails you, pretty parrot,
That you prattle so long ere day?”
“There came a cat to my door, master,
I thought ‘twould have worried me;
And I was calling on May Colvin
To take the cat from me.”
--Author Unknown (Traditional Ballad)
Hap Notes: I thought after Browning's ill-fated Duchess it might be good to see a woman who could take care of herself. "May Colvin" is a traditional story ballad that has many variations; May Colleen, May Colzean, False Sir John, The Water o' Wearies' Well, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, The Outlandish Knight, The Treacherous Knight, Heer Halewijn, The Willow Tree and more. It is said that various verse and song versions of the situation in this poem are in almost every culture in the world. In some versions the knight (False Sir John) is an elf or a priest. It has also been linked with the tale of Bluebeard which is French and dates from the 1600s. It is somewhat reminiscent of the story of Judith in the Apocrypha. So the tale is an old one, with many, many facets. It is a mytheme and, as such, dates back a ways.
The one we have today is familiar to the British isles. When she takes the "red" and leaves the "white" she is taking the gold and leaving the silver. In some of the versions the False Sir John asks her to take off her jewels first, then her dress, then her Holland smock ( a shift worn beneath the dress). The striptease in our poem is not nearly as titillating. Seems he just want to get to the drowning part. (Some Sir Johns are more sadistic/perverse than others.) It's interesting that he is staring at the leaves, the first apparel of Adam and Eve.
Our girl, who has been charmed by this guy at first, uses her wit and drowns the guy (who, in some versions, actually has the cojones to beg her for help.) He must be a pretty enchanting fella to lure the girl, her father's only child, from her home. I actually have a story that sort of relates to this. My mother was originally married to a fella who, while in the army, decided he wanted out of the marriage. She was pregnant with me at the time. She went to the military base in Florida (far from her home in the Midwest) to talk with him. She told me that he drove her out to a remote swampy location in the dead of night. She was shaking like a leaf and did nothing. They just sat there silently for about an hour in the humid blackness. He turned the car around and took them back to the base. (I've always wished she'd pushed him into the swamp – just sayin,' although it's nice to think that he took the high road, more or less.)
But the best part of this poem, to me, is the presence in many of the versions of a parrot. A talking parrot, no less, who is bribed by a pretty cage. A talking parrot who is bribed by a pretty cage who thinks on his feet, coming up with a good lie to cover for May. How long had parrots been kept as pets? Well, actually, quite a while– they are present in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the ancient Greeks and Romans had them, Alexander the Great had one, Native Americans in the Southwest had them (around 900 A.D.), Columbus brought them back from the New World, Henry VIII had an African Grey, Marie Antoinette and Mozart both had parrots, Martha Washington had one, okay...I'm gettin' carried away- just saying, yep, parrots have been pets for hundreds and hundreds of years. (One more bit of trivia and I'll stop; Queen Victoria's Aftican Grey could sing "God Save the Queen." Oh, and George Washington didn't much care for Martha's parrot and vice-versa.)
As with many ballads, there is a great deal going on in this poem. The "False Sir John" is often called "the outlander" so it's a cautionary tale about anyone not from one's own region. It's also a warning to women that charming men can be dangerous and when they ask for dad's money they're up to no good. It's also worth noting that even though False Sir John has killed seven other women, May still doesn't want to say that she's killed a man. Why? Is it her reputation she's worried about? Is she worried about upsetting her father? Women who killed men were often strangled or burnt or both- was that it? One would think this was justifiable homicide, yes? In some of the poems, May shows no mercy when he says he'll take her back home if she "saves" him. Our poem does not feature this. Maybe she feels like an idiot being duped by this guy. Your guess is probably better than mine.
Here are some of the variations: http://www.springthyme.co.uk/ballads/balladtexts/04_LadyIsabel.html
Here's the Lady Isabel/May Colvin song with lots of verses (30!) which really sews up the story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDqp-uEQODw